The first time that I tasted a ripe fig was an unforgettable experience; it was truly like eating nature's candy. If you are thinking that this is like the ubiquitous Fig Newton, you're not even close. A true fig does is not even a distant relative of that sandy-textured puree. The real deal is a delight, except for its exorbitant price in the produce aisle.To overcome the cravings of fig addiction and have an abundant supply, plant a tree.
The fig is a beautiful small tree. The leaves are like big green whimsical mittens fashioned for a gentle giant. Many trees in the landscape are stunningly dramatic or elegant attention-getters, but the fig is my happy tree.
The fruit, which is truly the icing on the cake, starts out as pea-shaped buds at the intersections of branches. These continue to grow, and when completely mature, they are the size of a small egg. They are fully ripe when they droop slightly and feel soft to the touch. A ripe fig is heaven and well worth the wait. A first-year fig may or may not produce fruit, but the leaves alone are worth the price of admission.
The fig tree is not native to our climate, so getting one to bear fruit is not easy. There are two options: plant one in the landscape and bury it or cover it to keep the fruit buds from freezing or keep one in a container. I have opted for containers, and this means picking the smaller varieties. 'Brown Turkey' and 'Black Jack' are perfect candidates. By pruning, they can be kept at a reasonable height.
My container figs are small wonders of nature that reside on our deck, where they can be admired, enjoyed and harvested joyfully. Make certain that the container chosen is at least 16 inches wide and has adequate drainage. The key to success for any containerized plant is having the proper potting medium which will allow the plant to both absorb water and drain freely. Use a mixture that contains equal parts of a soilless potting mix (ProMix is my favorite), peat moss, either small gravel, perlite or chicken grits, compost or composted manure, and a cupful of pelletized lime. Into this mix, add 2 cups of 5-10-5 granular fertilizer or Espoma Tree Tone or Plant Tone.
As you plant the tree and backfill around it, keep the mix at least 2 inches below the top of the container. The point where the tree trunk meets the root ball should be level with the soil. Water well when the tree is firmly in place. Containerized plants dry out quickly, so be prepared to water every day. If your container is on a deck or concrete, raise it above the surface with bricks, pot feet or plant stands. This allows the pot to drain and keeps the roots from absorbing the intense heat that can build up on concrete and wood. This heat can cook the roots of plants unless they are elevated. Raising the pot has the added benefit of preventing stains on the deck and cement.
As the fig tree grows, increase the pot size to accommodate the larger specimen. I prefer using fiberglass or plastic pots because their light weight makes them easily maneuverable. The joy of planting this way will become apparent when it is time to overwinter your fig.
Container joy comes in the fall when all you do is bring your dormant fig into an unheated garage, a cool basement or a dark closet. I do not use burlap or any form of protection on my trees. Do not place your tree in the warm house in good light. The tree must go through a period of dormancy, and this will totally negate that effect. Just give it a bit of water, about 2 cups once a month.
Watch for signs of growth as the daylight hours expand in late February and early March. Somehow, these wonderful trees are programmed to begin growth and leafing out as spring approaches, even if they are confined to a dark cellar or closet. When this happens, move the tree where it is still cool but has more light. Take it outside when the weather is warmer and there is no more danger of frost. Now is the time to fertilize. Any of the following can benefit both the landscape or containerized fig -- fish emulsion, a dressing of compost or composted manure, Espoma Tree Tone or Plant Tone, or a water-soluble balanced fertilizer such as a 20-20-20.
A containerized tree should be moved into a larger pot annually and will benefit from root pruning every 3-4 years, or do it when there is a noticeable decline in fruit production and leaves appear significantly smaller. When the tree is fully dormant, take it out of the container and remove one-fourth to one-third of the root system from the bottom and all around the sides. Reposition it in the same container and fill the empty spaces with original planting mixture. Do not use fertilizer at this time. You have just performed surgery without benefit of anesthesia, and the patient needs rest. Water well in order to settle the tree and firm the soil.
Figs can be top pruned when totally dormant in the late fall. Remove all dead branches, then make angled cuts on the branches slightly above an outward facing bud. This will encourage further branching and create an open canopy allowing more light to enter and permitting good air circulation.
These small efforts will be well rewarded, for having a fig is total joy. It is a beautiful small tree that bears heavenly fruit. Many local nurseries are stocked now with varieties that will be successful in this area. I am including an Internet option that some unusual varieties well suited to our climate and produce incredibly sweet large fruit -- 'Paradiso,' which yields two crops a season, and 'Black Triana.' Figs adore the companionship of other fig trees. This thought certainly justifies having more than one.
Susan Silverman, a master gardener from Murrysville, was a co-winner, large garden category, of the 2006 Great Gardens contest.